Poor DNA Analysis Responsible for Low Conviction Rates in Indiaby Opinion Express November 6, 2018 0 comments
In a country like India where sex crimes are quite high, it is unfortunate that we’re behind in the collection and analysis of DNA from crime scenes, leading to poor conviction rates.
Forensic DNA is the world’s most effective crime fighting technology. It is highly accurate and globally accepted as a premier standard for human identification from biological evidence. In fact, the probabilities of potential error are extremely low, given that the DNA is collected, preserved and tested accurately. Over 59 countries have adopted this system to reduce crimes and they all use a similar technological set-up for DNA profiling. While most of these countries have already set up a DNA database, India is still lagging behind. However, the introduction of Human DNA Profiling Bill that had been proposed in Parliament is a step in the right direction.
Rape and other sex crimes against women are a serious societal problem in India. Everyday the news is filled with violent incidents against women and children. Even as the crime rate escalates, the conviction rate, especially in rape and sexual assault cases, has fallen from nearly 50 per cent in 2012 to less than 30 per cent in 2015 in Delhi alone. More than 1.4 lakh rape cases still stand pending in courts nationwide. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), more than 34,600 rapes were registered in 2015.
Significant backlogs exist in the crime labs with respect to DNA profiling due to lack of infrastructure and manpower. The situation gets further aggravated by the lack of a DNA database. A DNA profile generated from a crime case has no relevance until a suspect’s DNA profile is available to compare with. In blind cases of rape and murder, it becomes a very lengthy process to search for the culprit. At times all the efforts may not bear fruit at the end. With the availability of a DNA database, the profile from a crime case can be quickly compared to the existing repeat offender samples present in a database. This can save a lot of time, in addition to directing the investigation on the right track. Further, this will also accelerate the investigation and trial process.
The DNA Profiling Bill and addressing associated privacy concerns: Considering the current scenario on sexual assault in India, the need for a Human DNA Profiling Bill has been a topic of debate for over a decade now. Since its inception, the Bill is riddled with apprehensions such as concerns over potential misuse of the information in the database; issues with the rules set on the use of the information stored in the DNA database, et al. However, to address these issues, the Bill was deliberated over and multiple iterations after, it has now been presented in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. Further discussions over it will ensue in the upcoming Winter Session.
I am going to start with laying emphasis on what the DNA Bill states. It has clearly defined rules and regulations on:
- Collection and transportation of crime scene DNA.
- Stringent quality assurance norms for DNA labs.
- Stringent protocols for access of information by law enforcement, legal and judiciary for justice delivery.
- Identifying missing persons and unidentified bodies
It is imperative to highlight that, contrary to popular belief, the DNA database stores DNA profiles of convicted criminals involved in heinous crimes only. One must not confuse this with other systems such as Aadhaar (which is unique number identity for all residents of India). I am highlighting this as it is important to dispel fear from the mind of the masses. The common man is not required to provide a sample of their DNA. The DNA database is similar to fingerprint records of criminals maintained by fingerprint bureaus at the National and State level.
Additionally, it is important to note that the Bill clearly highlights that DNA sample cannot be collected from a non-consenting individual without permission from the magistrate, who may grant permission based on the situation.
Also, a trial court can send the DNA sample for re-examination if it is convinced with the accused’s plea. However, the above protocols are not applicable to heinous crimes punishable by death or crimes that extend 7+ years imprisonment terms.
Recently, the Ministry of Home Affairs released a set of guidelines/standard operating procedures (SOPs) on the collection and preservation of DNA evidence in case of sexual assault and rape investigation. These SOPs will provide knowledge to the law enforcement as well as the medical fraternity on the rules to be followed while collecting, preserving and transporting crime scene DNA.
DNA profiling and the science involved: Accurately collected, preserved and transported crime scene DNA, when analysed, will produce a unique DNA profile. To create this profile, 20 standardised locations are picked out of over three billion base pairs from a single DNA strand. The resulting specimen does not contain any prognostic information on genetic health or other phenotypic characteristics, such as hair, colour, age, built, height, intelligence, except the gender.
The DNA secured from the crime scene is searched against a DNA database with samples of criminal DNA profiles. If a match occurs, only then is the crime lab notified and the information is shared with the investigation team. The DNA database is completely secure — only a handful of well-qualified and proficient individuals have authorised access for the purpose of crime investigation. Also, the whole database is designed to protect individual privacy.
Different countries have different systems that work compatibly with their set laws and regulations. The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is one such system that successfully combines science and technology to create an effective DNA analysis/comparison tool. These systems are specifically designed to ensure data security.
CODIS and other similar data bases in the West have already addressed issues primarily related to security and privacy. The use of DNA database takes the forensic application of DNA technology in crime investigation to a whole new level. Unfortunately, India has not yet tapped into this potential.
Why the DNA database is important: DNA database is the need of the hour. A repository containing DNA profiles of criminals makes it easier for investigators to identify and arrest offenders in most unsolved cases, especially sexual assault; it decreases the chances of repeat offence. Often, repeat offenders change location or bide their time before committing the crime again. The DNA database will make tracking these offenders easy.
India, though faced with a problem of serious sexual assault cases, is not doing enough to ‘collect’, ‘test’ and ‘compare’ DNA from crime scenes, which amounts to poor conviction and very high pendency rate. However, the Indian legal system and investigative agencies are not completely unfamiliar with DNA casework. We have several successful examples, such as the Nirbhaya gangrape case, Gudiya rape and murder case, the Navi Mumbai paedophile rape and murder case, and Venkatesh exoneration case, that indicate effective use of DNA casework to deliver justice.
Though a lot needs to be done to improve adoption of DNA casework in the country, there is sufficient proof to show that law enforcement and investigative agencies are now progressing in the right direction. There are discussions on planning the right policy and improving infrastructure support.
Writer: Vivek Sahajpal
Courtesy: The Pioneer